Sixty years after his debut screen appearance, Godzilla is back on our screens in his second American guise. For anyone who remembers the 1998 Roland Emmerich version, this news may legitimately cause trepidation. My interest in the picture came about when I heard that the new film was to be directed by second time director Gareth Edwards. For nearly half a decade since Edwards’ first film, I’ve been telling anyone I can get my hands on to watch his film Monsters. That movie was outstanding; an ultra low budget monster-thinker which Edwards wrote, directed, shot and edited himself besides doing all of the FX work in his bedroom. In comparison to that movie, Godzilla is a let down.
Things start well with an interesting and attractive titles sequence which gives a slight spin on the traditional Godzilla back story. The film postulates that the atomic tests of the 1950s were in fact not tests at all but an elaborate attempt to destroy the gigantic titular beast. Fast forward several decades and we find Joe Brody (Bryan Cranston) hard at work as the supervisor of a Japanese Nuclear Power Plant. Brody is concerned by strange seismic patterns which are unlike any earthquake he’s seen before. In fact he’s convinced there are no earthquakes at all.
I don’t need to go into much further detail with the story as anyone who’s au fait with the basics of Godzilla will be able to guess the gist of the story. What Edwards’ movie does do though is to try and bring the human elements of the story to the forth. Unfortunately this is done with some fairly one dimensional characters and exposition filled, cheesy dialogue. The idea of creating a movie in which we focus on the people while monsters battle in the background is interesting and it follows the film’s thesis that we don’t control nature and aren’t the top of the food chain. We barely register to Godzilla and in this respect he does what he does without paying much attention to us. The idea then of focusing on how people survive around him is an interesting one. In the end though, it’s poorly executed.
Although much of the talk surrounding the film has been of Bryan Cranston’s casting, it is in fact Aaron Taylor-Johnson who takes the lead role. He’s an actor who has delivered fine performances in the past but here he lacks the charisma he displayed in the likes of Nowhere Boy and Anna Karenina. His character is of the Hollywood stock of beefed up military guys who we’ve seen a thousand times before and despite his well meaning family nature, he’s a forgettable character. For a monster movie that focuses so heavily on people, the lead character is badly written and mistakenly cast. Bryan Cranston fairs a little better but many of the cast appear to be lost on the cutting room floor. The magnificent Sally Hawkins and token Japanese guy Ken Watanabe appear from time to time with a warning here, or a worried look there. It feels like their characters were intended for more but forgotten. Elizabeth Olsen is a rare shining light in the grim acting department but her role is limited.
Godzilla is nicely designed and beautifully bought to life. He moves like a real animal, sleek and graceful in the water and noticeably less poised on land. He’s joined by another creature called a MUTO (Massive Unidentified Terrestrial Organism). The MUTO is equally well designed but left me feeling confused. I was unsure as to its origin and its relationship with Godzilla. Perhaps I was having a slow day but in a film with as much exposition as this one, I’d have expected to understand exactly what was going on. A lot of my confusion may have stemmed from boredom. Throughout the movie I was bored. Whether Taylor-Johnson was trying to get back to his family or Godzilla was tearing through a city, I just wasn’t bothered. The film successfully creates some Jurassic Park goat feeding suspense but I was never really on its side. Speaking of suspense, Godzilla is absent for the majority of the opening hour and is only seen sparingly thereafter. I liked this device for the most part but when he was on screen, I would have appreciated the occasional shot of him in the daytime.
One of my favourite aspects of the movie is something which Gareth Edwards excelled at in Monsters and that is the depiction of decay. Several pivotal scenes take place in long abandoned locations and these are always, without fail, beautifully imagined and filmed. I’d have happily watched the characters explore these areas for two hours but I guess that’s a different film. And it stars Will Smith. The visuals are superb throughout and the film looks like good for its $160 million. It also sounds incredible too. The sound design is superb but the film is on the whole a lot quieter than I was expecting. The final forty minutes however is an onslaught of destruction and noise and looks remarkable but by now we’ve seen it all before. It feels as though every blockbuster ends with a city destroying fight and although this one features monsters rather than superheroes, it’s well trodden ground.
Disappointingly the film features far too many plot holes and typical blockbuster devices. Examples include a dog running away from a disaster, a school bus full of trapped children, a man trying to reach his family and a 'crazy' scientist who might just be right after all. During the film it becomes a necessity to transport a nuclear weapon. Rather than doing this by helicopter, it's taken by train with an escort of about a dozen soldiers. This train also has to pass right through, shall we say, somewhere it doesn't want to. At one stage the military are looking for an escaped MUTO and after looking through a couple of doorways suddenly notice half a mountainside that has been ripped away. There are other issues which took me out of the film such as when a character is caught trespassing, he's taken to an ultra top secret facility rather than a normal jail. You don't take James Bond to you're Volcano Lair. It's film making 101.
In the end Godzilla is a film with some nice ideas that looks excellent. Its scope is as ambitious as World War Z and the effects match that of any recent blockbuster. The monsters are well designed and the film provides one or two decent set pieces but overall I felt let down by a poor script which while trying to reinvent the legend, treads the same ground as a hundred blockbusters before it.
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